05. 13. 2014. 13:30

Prae (excerpt)

"When I had the Ottoman army lay waste to the Catholic conclave in Sicily, I had the sense that I was hitting with my own hands at the naïve masses who had hallucinated moral modesty into the taste impotence of my female acquaintance."— Excerpt from the first ever English translation of "Prae", forthcoming from Contra Mundum Press.

In this excerpt from the first chapter of Miklós Szentkuthy's monumental work, Prae, originally published in 1934, the writer discusses the roots of artistic expression. Starting with an emotion — rage against a thrifty woman who dresses too modestly even though she is rich — he invents a story with "rational high-handedness", a story that will be one of the three starting-points for novelistic expression. Eighty years after its original publication, the first part of Prae will be published for the first time in English in September 2014 by Contra Mundum Press.

I invented the following story against the stingy woman: a Spanish duke had at one time been in love with a girl who didn’t love him. They separate and meet no more. The girl becomes a nun, and before long acquires a reputation for saintliness: her chief virtues are thriftiness and forgiveness; she neglects the nunnery’s art treasures, sells them off, and calmly tolerates attacks on her and her convent. The convent’s belongings thus gradually fall into the hands of Venetian Semitic traders: the girl, who by then is famous as a saint, had stemmed from the Christianized Sicilian branch of a likewise Venetian merchant family, but that is not suspected by the fellow nuns of her sisterhood. The ‘saintly’ mother superior (for she soon became that) suddenly dies, and proceedings to canonize her commence. That is where the story began, in fact.

Among the pre-eminent priests and prelates who gather for the canonization is the Spanish duke, the former lover of the woman who is to be canonized, who had similarly become a priest and there soon stood out for his dialectical adroitness and feverish, erotic rationalism, which he sought to exploit now as an antagonist and assailant of sainthood. He is clear that he does not wish to oppose the girl’s sanctification because she had not reciprocated his love back then, but because he holds her type of asceticism to be characteristically unchristian, indeed anti-Catholic: he wants to prove from her extant writings and sayings that her modesty was rooted in mercantile money-grubbing, her forgiving was none other than indifference to the truth, whilst her puritanicalness was ignorant laziness, and, as far as the practical side of things was concerned: those of the convent’s goods that she had deprived herself of with such exemplary self-denial had become the property of Semitic merchants, which they had devoted to women, wine, and, above all, the manufacture of weapons that the Ottoman sultan purchased as he was preparing for a devastating campaign against Christian Europe.

He discourses at length on the difference between exotic (i.e., truly Catholic) self-denial and naïve-mercantile secular puritanicalness: in the latter he does not see a disdain for the material but an almost calculated cult, which does not annihilate material but collects it, so that the luxury which spends the winnings on artistic entertainments or even frivolous reveling is still a more moral way of handling money than hoarding it. He manages to demonstrate that the reason the mother superior had cultivated a style of such extreme poverty was because she did not find in the world anything which was of so great a value as the magnitude that money signified for her. In his speech for the prosecution (which is what it was) he characterizes the whole convent as a dark symbol of “materialist self-denial.”

Meanwhile, he learns by chance that the mother superior stemmed from the Sicilian branch of a famous Venetian merchant family, one of whose members had rescued the duke’s family financially. The duke travels to Venice, in order to observe merchants: there he meets the new pope, and learns that he has Lutheran sympathies. This new pope had found a stash of manuscripts by the deceased mother superior in which she had expounded Catholic dogmas with the purest possible orthodoxy. For that reason, the Lutheranizing pope wishes to hinder sanctification, and is very glad to encounter in Venice the celebrated scholarly opponent of sanctification. The duke, naturally, is unwilling to come to terms with the pope, who is attacking the mother superior’s virtues from the viewpoint of Protestant-flavored puritanism. The duke loathes simplicity of mercantile origin just as much as Protestant simplicity, and he leaves off his backbiting, not wanting to be in one and the same party as the pope.

The duke vanishes in Venice (Semite merchants, diplomatic Lutherans, and a vanished Catholic apologist — ça, c’est pittoresque!)

The conclave discussing sanctification is still together as a body in Sicily where two guests arrive from two sides at the same time: from the north the pope, and from the south, by ship, a Turkish army. The pope is none other than a machiavellianistically thinking Lutheran, who, making use of his oratorical and literary brilliance, had attained the papal throne in a hypocritical manner and from there now seeks to terrorize Catholics. At the head of the Ottoman army is the girl of Semitic descent whom, as it happened, the Sicilian conclave was seeking to sanctify. In other words, the girl is still alive; her entire nunnish career had been superficial (not hypocritical!), she escaped on the first Turkish ship onto which she had been lured. In her place a stranger’s smuggled corpse was buried. The Turks scatter the conclave, but the girl disappears just as the duke did in Venice.

If I take the trial of a theory and my loathing for the girl as preparations, and the spontaneous sunflower fragment as the first phase of the “Outline of an Opening,” then this worked-out story is the second big step of my development into a novel.

This second step is characterized by a deliberate weaving of the abstract lines of the plot: a heap of tendentiously sketched dilemmas, nodes of tragedy, and mechanically condensed moral crises — it was in these that my hatred for the girl was lived out. That hatred was perhaps directed less against the ‘discretely clad’ rich girl than against those broad swathes of humanity which believe that the girl’s discretion is a virtuous and upper class matter, not noticing that is vulgar, shopkeeper mediocrity, obstinate stinginess. When I had the Ottoman army lay waste to the Catholic conclave in Sicily, I had the sense that I was hitting with my own hands at the naïve masses who had hallucinated moral modesty into the taste impotence of my female acquaintance. However consciously I had mapped out the above story, that consciousness nevertheless did not operate on the level of mundane life, because the sunflower stump stood before it and transformed consciousness’s rhythm: the sunflower as the initial, which performed the hygienic work of rendering things improbable, transposed consciousness onto a more frivolous-disquieting plane.

That would have left the ‘elaboration’ of the story. Where to start? The story as I wrote it down here did not arise in my brain as the sketch of a novel that was to be worked out later but was a standalone ready entity, like the sunflower sign, which preceded it, with the difference that I had deliberately forced the issue. But the aim of the whole thing was that I pour out my anger against the girl into a structure, a linear formula: if I had found the formula, the matter was no longer of interest, and it would have been an absurd idea to ‘elaborate’ the plot formula. An algebraic equation expressing a law of physics cannot be expanded into an epic: and the essential feature of the above plot subject was that by its very nature it was not an epic; it had no novelistic aims, it was a closed, finished formula. With me theme and development never depended on each other: I had subjects which were perennial themes and it was just as impossible to ‘elaborate’ them as it is impossible to construct or ‘elaborate’ the Great Wall of China from a ball of mercury completely contracted onto itself: an outline can never be related to a later elaboration; every outline is self-contained and uncontinuable.

Translated by: Tim Wilkinson

Tags: Miklós Szentkuthy